Tuesday, November 21, 2023

PCT & Triple Crown Wrap-up

It seemed that Mt. Rainier might reach out and grab me. The hulking, glaciated beast loomed impressively to my north, magmatic pressure silently building deep below the snow and rock. From my perch atop Old Snowy, I also spied Mt. St. Helens, a visceral reminder of what happens when a volcano gets a tummy ache. To the south lay stately Mt. Adams. Once I rounded Adams a few days later, the cycle repeated itself, with Mt. Hood visible to the south. In all, I spent more than 1,200 miles navigating from one giant snowy volcano to the next, pulled inexorably southward by the stately peaks.

On weekend backpacking trips, we may visit a beautiful place - the Timberline Trail around Mt. Hood, or Mt. Rainier National Park, say. But unless we know the surrounding area well, these beautiful places lack context. They're mere eye candy in a terra incognita. On a long-distance hike by contrast, we see both the crown jewels and all the places in between. We see the scenery change slowly over the course of 2,000+ miles. Each geographic feature blends into one cohesive tapestry.

In case it's not already clear: I love long-distance hiking.

PCT: Overall Thoughts

I apologize in advance that this section won't live up to your expectations. There's a lot of platitudes I ought to repeat about the PCT, like "it changed my life", or "it's all about the people". But to be honest, none of them really apply. The truth is more prosaic: it was an amazing dessert. 

Yes, dessert, with two S's. A sweet course after the main meal. 

My path to the Triple Crown (AT, CDT, then PCT) is perhaps the most unusual of the six possible permutations. Most people do the PCT fairly early in their hiking careers, whereas I was ten years deep before I ever got around to walking the PCT. It therefore stands to reason that my experience on the PCT would be a bit offbeat as well. I'm not here to drone about how difficult the PCT was, or how much it changed my life. Such things were true about my first long-distance hike, the AT. But after a decade of long trails, the PCT's appeal to me was perhaps more banal, yet no less delightful.

The PCT was all sweet. The miles came easy, the weather remained cooperative, and it was more consistently beautiful than either the CDT or AT. The PCT is perhaps the best trail for thru-hikers who want to turn their brain off, let their legs churn miles, and enjoy the beautiful scenery. I certainly wouldn't want all my trail experiences to be PCT-like, just as I wouldn't want to eat a diet solely of marshmallows and ice cream. In general, I prefer trails with a few more rough edges. But as a dessert - as a well-earned, pleasant reward for many other miles of eating my vegetables, I certainly enjoyed it.

In particular, my aim on the PCT was to experience the grandeur of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada, two ranges I hadn't previously spent any meaningful time in. I enjoyed the Sierra, which was no surprise. The Sierra reminded me of other granitic ranges, such as the Wind River Range or Little Cottonwood Canyon in my Utah backyard. Beauty is of course subjective, but I reckon most hikers regard the Sierra as the most scenic section of the PCT, and I can't really disagree. 

But the Cascades blew me away, far exceeding my modest expectations. I had perfect weather for almost all of Washington and Oregon. A perfect amount of decorative snow lingered. Mosquitoes were annoying in spots, but overall not as consistently bad as I'd anticipated. Vis a vis expectations, the Cascades were my favorite section. In fact, Washington in particular was so scenic that I perhaps unfairly turned up my nose at Oregon, which held far more beauty than I gave it credit for.

So that's the grand conclusion - the PCT was beautiful and pleasant. It was dessert. And sometimes, that's enough.

"It's all about the people"

Ask hikers what their favorite part of a thru-hike is, and many will repeat the above platitude about "the people". I'm not entirely sure if most people actually believe it, or if they're just afraid of being labeled as misanthropic grumps. As a 22-year-old fresh off the Appalachian Trail, I certainly would have dutifully recited "the people" as the trail's top highlight. But over the course of my long-distance hiking career, my style has evolved toward something a bit more solitary. If you want a highly rewarding interpersonal experience, join the Lions Club or something. For me, thru-hikes aren't a particularly social experience.

To be clear, I've made amazing friends on long trails and in the hiking community over the years. I'm still in regular contact with many of them. I treasure those friendships.

But though it was my most social thru-hike, I still spent most of the AT hiking alone or in loose affiliation with others. Likewise, on the CDT, I made some good friends, but only camped with another person once on the entire second half of the trail. And even on the crowded PCT, I camped alone at least 90% of the time. Prior to the PCT, I was a bit concerned that I'd be stuck in a fishbowl and not cope well with the crowded nature of the trail. My concerns turn out to be unfounded though; I found that by minimizing town time and dry camping, I found enough peace and quiet.

Speaking of People...

When it comes to professional networking, I'm a complete zero. But in the outdoors, it's different. The thru-hiking world is a small town, and there are never more than two degrees of separation between any pair of hikers. If I don't know you, I almost certainly know somebody who knows you. After 10 years and more than a few long-distance hikes, I've made a good number of friends. On the northern half of the PCT, I took the opportunity to visit several hiker friends. I realize that listing the friends I stayed with isn't exactly riveting journalism, but to gloss over anyone seems almost criminally inappropriate.

  • Mike & Naomi (Winthrop, WA)
  • Tree & Free (Sisters, OR)
  • Cruise & Shine (Ashland, OR)
  • Blue Moon (Reno, NV)

Cruise and Shine - hiking partners in the desert, hosts in Ashland

In fact, on the entire PCT, I only stayed in a motel room or other commercial lodging three times. The rest of my stays were with friends. I was able to sample a little bit of their lives. And because they're all hikers, they were prepared for my stinky gear and impolite appetite. Salt Lake City is perhaps the most central crossroads in the West, and I host hiker friends pretty routinely. It was a treat to have the shoe on the other foot and enjoy some hospitality. A sincere thanks to all of them.

And those are just the people who I stayed with during the actual PCT. I'd be remiss not to mention the other delightful visits this year as part of my hiking adventures:

  • My uncle Steve and aunt Karin before and after the PCT
  • My uncle Marc and aunt Paula before and after my AT adventure
  • Ralph and Sue Pugliese in the middle of the AZT. 

I realize this is just a list of names to most folks, but each represents memories I'll smile about for a long time.

Pedal to the Metal

When I made the decision to flip up to the Canadian border, I knew I'd be on a tight timeline. I had to attend a wedding on the 4th of July, and wanted to be done by early October to maximize my chances of beating any early-season snowstorms. I had to hike 2,000 miles in less than three months - a pace right at the limit of my capabilities.

To be honest though, I was looking forward to that pace. All of my hiking adventures for the past two years had involved training wheels - a gradual process of regaining function and fitness after a pretty devastating injury. I was ready to pull off the training wheels and see what would happen. I couldn't stand the thought of being Uncle Rico, longing in vain for bygone days and wondering "what if". 

I don't believe in giving 100% effort on any one individual day, because then tomorrow's performance suffers. Instead, by putting in a level of effort that's sustainable day-over-day, I perform at my long-term peak for weeks or months. There's not much more I could have done to go faster - I was giving it all I had.

I only hiked about a dozen 30-mile days on the PCT, and those only by walking from dawn to dusk. Mostly, I achieved the pace by keeping town stops short. I tried to walk at least 20 miles on town days, and 25+ on non-town days. As the autumn equinox drew near, I found myself doing a couple miles before sunrise each day. Hikers often repeat the axiom "It's about the smiles, not the miles", but in pushing myself on the PCT, I found a lot to smile about. I'm not usually focused on pace on a thru-hike, but on this dessert-hike, it added an interesting challenge.

Losing a Lodestar

For the past ten years, the Triple Crown has served as an life-organizing principle. Even though the accomplishment of Triple Crowning was never particularly meaningful to me, I dreamed of doing each of the individual trails - embracing the challenge of the CDT, the beauty of the PCT, or the lore of the AT. Moreover, the Triple Crown trails have a certain cultural cache. Family and friends understood what I was doing, and could at least imagine why such a journey might be personally meaningful. By contrast, DIY routes with arbitrary endpoints tend to draw blank looks of confusion.

With the completion of the Triple Crown, I've lost that lodestar. Unless I aim to finish all 11 National Scenic Trails (which is currently not on the menu), any future thru-hikes won't fit into any overarching meta-narrative of working toward a long-term goal; they'll just be something I want to do. This doesn't bother me, but it does color how friends, family and employers perceive these journeys. 

My rain gear is super attractive, y'all

Superficial Superlatives

Each trail of the Triple had its own personality, and comparison is mostly a pointless exercise. But hey, you already made it this far in this quasi-iconoclastic screed, so clearly you can't object too much to my bloviating.

For me, the Appalachian Trail (2013) was the most transformative of my Triple Crown hikes. The AT tipped over a whole bunch of other dominoes in my life. My decisions to move to Utah - to work in the financial services industry, to live life out of a car or a backpack for a while - all these are interwoven with my 2013 Appalachian Trail hike. On the AT, God showed me where he wanted me - in the outdoors, marveling in his creation.

The Continental Divide Trail (2018) was my favorite Triple Crown hike. It was the wildest and most roughly-defined of the three trails. On it, I developed my preferred hiking style - a solo, off-the-beaten-path, immersive wilderness experience. The CDT was a remarkably smooth hike; while I hit four fire closures, they were all fairly minor. Given the chance to do one of these trails again, I'd choose the CDT in a heartbeat. On the CDT, God showed me what to do in the outdoors - to be a visible representative of Jesus in the hiking world, where the good news of salvation is desperately needed and rarely heard.

The Pacific Crest Trail (2023) has been discussed at length already, so just to summarize - it was the most "fun" trail, in the traditional sense. It was stunningly beautiful, and offered me an opportunity to re-engage with the outdoors after a bumpy and difficult couple of years. On the PCT, God showed me how to exist in the outdoors - aware of my utter dependence on him, and in constant prayer and conversation with him.

What's Next

I'd like to formally announce a retirement from long-distance hiking... of my boonie hat. My hat has accompanied me on every trip for the past seven years, and was, starting to show its age. It survived a nighttime rodent encounter (fixed with dental floss) and a bear attack (fixed with dorky green thread). I abused it countless times pushing headfirst through tamarisk and all sorts of nasty desert spikey plants. The sun literally wore holes in the top. When I patched the holes, new holes developed around the perimeter of the patches. It's threadbare to the extreme.

So after at least 12,000 miles, it's time for a new hat. The new one's identical to the old one, of course, and with it I plan to embark on plenty of new adventures. I don't have anything planned in specific, but there's always a trip or two in the works. For the foreseeable future, I expect those trips to be vacation-length. I'm applying for jobs at the moment. I'm not exactly sure what the next chapter looks like, but the lesson I learned from the PCT is that God always has another trick up his sleeve, and I can have confidence in him.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Confessions of an Novice Packrafter

Of the four seasons, fall is perhaps the most transitory. Sure, nausea-inducing Pumpkin Spice Season drags on forever, but the actual epoch of colorful leaves only lasts a couple weeks. Two weeks ago, the colors were at their peak in Michigan. One week later, all those leaves had fallen, whereupon I spent some quality time bonding with the leaf blower. So when a beautiful weather window presented itself this weekend, I knew I'd have to head south to catch the last vestiges of color.

Indiana has exactly one Wilderness area, the Charles C. Deam Wilderness near Bloomington. A series of steep hills and incised ravines cut through the landscape, all bordered to the north by a large reservoir. Speaking of water though, I found relatively little of it. Every time I dipped down into a hollow, I'd find a mostly-dry stream bed, sometimes punctuated by a couple pools of tannic water. Spelunkers love the Swiss cheese limestone bedrock of Kentucky and southern Indiana. But for backpackers, it's a bit annoying that streams appear and disappear seemingly at random. Karst topography makes for an unpredictable water situation.

At any rate, the Deam features a well-developed trail network. I strung together several of these trails into a 30-mile loop. Given that a couple of the trails dead-ended at different points along the Lake Monroe shoreline, I couldn't resist the opportunity to take my new packraft out for a spin.

Packraft? Yes indeed. A compact, inflatable boat designed to be carried in a backpack. Including a paddle and life jacket, the whole kit weighs about 6 pounds. I primarily plan to use it in order to explore tough-to-access landscapes. Oftentimes in southern Utah, I hike from the top of a canyon down to where it empties into one of the Colorado Plateau's major rivers. Without a packraft, I have no choice but to return the way I came. With a packraft however, I can float down the river and the journey can continue. Rivers and lakes, once obstacles to forward progress, suddenly become conduits.

The packraft wasn't the only nicety that I brought on this trip. I toted an isobutane stove, and my trusty pair of $4.36 knockoff Crocs purchased four years ago from Walmart in Las Cruces, NM. I typically forego the stove and camp shoes, but given the long November nights, it made sense to carry a couple extra pounds to be more comfortable in camp.

Day One

The first day dawned bright and sunny, albeit a bit chilly. I was feeling cozy, and it wasn't until the sun was fully up that I reluctantly emerged from the cocoon in the back of my car. It wasn't entirely clear whether I was actually parked in a designated area or not, and trailhead fee verbiage was unclear, so I chucked a long-expired America The Beautiful pass on my dashboard and hoped for the best. 

I crunched my way through the forest as sun began to filter through the oaks and sycamores. Oak has a tendency to underwhelm; its leaves often go directly from green to brown, or at best sport a sickly maroon twinge for a few days. The sycamores were a bit more impressive. Several were yellow - perhaps not the brilliant yellow of an aspen or cottonwood, but delightful all the same. A couple trees stood out with a bit more orangey coloration. There would be crimson maples on this trip, sadly. 

I did appreciate, however, the sounds of fall. Either the region has been quite dry recently, or else someone's been curating the forest floor for maximal crunchiness. Even while walking right on the trail, I was trudging through several inches of freshly fallen, crispy leaves in a delightful cacophany that practically screams "autumn". I pitied the deer around here; there'd be no sneaking away from hunters. On the other hand, neither could the hunters move without themselves creating a racket. Mutually Assured Decibels, I grinned to myself. 

I wound my way down a series of switchbacks into a ravine. To my surprise, I found no flowing water, just a small puddle. I wouldn't find any flow in the next hollow either. In fact, I didn't see any flowing streams for the entirety of my three days in the Deam. Karst strikes again! I found puddles in several ravines, but much of the water has been discolored by tannins. It looked like iced tea, but generally tasted fine. After years of drinking from desert cow-poop sources, my "acceptable water" standard is pretty low, but pickier backpackers might have grimaced. 

The little-used trail wound its way over a series of ridges. I gained and lost a surprising amount of elevation. Though the hills weren't huge, the trail always seemed to be climbing or descending. It was well-graded and pleasant though, with a few switchbacks when the terrain demanded it. I met a couple horsepackers and fellow weekend backpackers along the way, but the trail was mostly quiet until I reached the fire tower.

Fire towers are always a crowd-pleaser, particularly when they're easily accessible. A dirt road bisects the Wilderness to allow access to the fire tower. When I got there, the parking lot was full, yet I had a few quiet minutes between groups at the top of the tower. It's the only remaining fire tower left in the Hoosier National Forest. Nationally, the few that still exist are often locked and sealed with barbed wire, so getting to look out over the forest on a sunny day was a real treat.

Eventually, it was time to leave the crowds and return to the comfort of the woods. I dropped down a series of switchbacks on a hiking-only trail. I paused to water up in a random puddle before making the climb back up to the ridgetop where I made camp.

Day Two

I woke up almost giddy. After a pot of hot chocolate, I made quick work of the few miles down a spur trail that led to the shoreline of Lake Monroe. There, I inflated my packraft and tiptoed around the deep, gloppy muck that rings the reservoir. I flopped into my boat with all the grace and dignity of a beached seal and paddled out a few hundred yards into the lake... and only then realized I'd left my trekking poles on shore. Sigh. Time to retrace my steps.

To make matters worse, I couldn't find the exact path that I'd used to avoid the calf-sucking mud the first time around, and got deeply, hilariously mired as soon as I got out of the raft. I hoped there was nobody watching from shore, as I was train-wrecking real hard. Each footstep was followed by thirty seconds of squelching as I attempted to extract my Croc from the mud. I had to retreat to the boat and paddle up and down the shoreline, probing different spots, before I finally found one that wasn't too squishy. Chastened, I grabbed the poles, slunk back to my packraft and set sail again. 

The rest of the rafting segment involved a lot more beauty and a lot less drama. I paddled about 4 miles of flat water across the open lake. Conditions were perfect - glassy-calm, not even the slightest breeze, beautiful sunshine, and no bugs at this time of year. I stopped for a littoral lunch on a convenient piece of driftwood, and continued a short distance to my destination, the end of a prominent peninsula that juts out into the reservoir. The peninsula is the most popular area in the Wilderness, and accessing it via the water, rather than the trail felt sneaky and fun. I set up an early camp on the tip of the peninsula, surrounded by cypress knees. I paddled around the shoreline for a while, experimenting with my boat to see how it handles, and generally romped around. 

I quit a bit early that day. I'd managed to drip quite a bit of water on everything (a consequence of splashy, inefficient paddle strokes) and I wanted to dry everything off before the sun got too low in the western horizon. I practiced deploying and stowing my boat a few times to work out the kinks and build muscle memory.

Dinner that evening was another stove affair - coucous with tuna, if you care to know. The wind was still calm and I caught a decent sunrise over the lake. Today was the first day of Standard Time, and sunset at 5:30pm reminded me of the doldrums to come. I gulped hot chocolate and nestled into my quilt for the night. 

Day Three

The slightest of breezes was beginning to kick up when I awoke. I knew a front was moving in later in the day, so I got up early and kept moving to stay ahead of it. I followed the famous Peninsula Trail to where it connected with the rest of the trail network, then turned off on a seldom-used, quasi-abandoned trail back to my car. A couple nice ridgetop views, a few dozen blowdowns, and one particularly brilliant sycamore later, I found myself at my car - thankfully not towed, ticketed, or totaled. Small victories, right?


I'm far from an expert on Indiana, but there seems to be a consensus that the Deam Wilderness is some of the best backpacking in the state, perhaps the best. I understand why. There's some interesting topography, a fire tower, a lake, even a few geodes to be found. Using a packraft really jazzed up the trip. I'm solidly in the "bumbling idiot" phase of the learning curve, but truth be told, I'm enjoying the process. I'm having fun picking up a new skill, especially one that will help expand my range of future trip possibilities.